Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mystery Bird

From the moment I laced up my shoes and stepped out the front door this morning, I knew something was different. The air felt different. The light was different. And then I realized what it was. It was only 34 degrees, frost on the grass not yet burned off by the morning sun, but somehow it felt like spring! The birds sensed it too; they were singing their spring songs. It was a beautiful morning, made all the more fantastic by the dreary week just past. After a quick invigorating 3 mile walk up and around the neighborhood with the dogs, we were headed back up the driveway when suddenly one bird song rang out above the rest, from somewhere high overhead.

At the very top of a towering pine perched a small bird singing for all he was worth. It sounded like a wren, but as I looked closer, I saw a blush of pink. My best guess was a purple finch. But when I enlarged the photos on my computer just now, I realized this is a new bird I've never seen before! I wonder if there are any birdwatchers among my readers. Can anyone identify our mystery harbinger of spring?

mystery bird!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Trickster Dogs

The dogs are playing tricks on me this morning! They've thrown a little twist into the usual routine.

Lady and Lucky know my morning routine well. After I get back from my workout, we feed the birds. Lady is resentful that the birds get to eat before she does, and she gazes pointedly at the dog food bin as I twist the top off the bin that holds the birds' food. Resisting her efforts at mind control, I grab the small sacks and the three of us head outside. They follow me around to each feeding station as I put sunflower seed out for the cardinals, suet for the woodpeckers and blue jays, mealyworms for the wrens. The sharp, cold air makes Lucky frisky and he gets a case of "the skittles," skittering about, prancing, and then suddenly darting to and fro. For an old guy, he can move pretty quick when the spirit moves him. Then, just before frostbite sets in (this morning, I happen to be wearing bike shorts), we scurry back inside. Time to get the coffee started. I've got a bag of fresh roasted local coffee this week, and within moments the delicious aroma fills the kitchen.

Hot mug of java in hand, I head to the computer. Lady settles onto her bed by the sliding door, but Lucky follows me. He has learned that "waiting for the computer to boot up" time is excellent dog massage time. Invisible dog though he usually is, he'll sidle up to my computer chair and lean into me. I rub my fingers through his soft black fur, while looking out the window at the first birds to appear with the dawn.

A mockingbird has been visiting this past week. I've never seen a mockingbird at one of my feeders before, but she seems to appreciate the dried mealyworms. The hard drive makes a staccato clicking sound as it comes to life. I wonder - is that a normal clicking? Or a worrisome clicking? I rub Lucky's head, down his spine, then around to his chest as he leans his full weight into me and sighs with contentment. Then I look down.

"Lady??! Where did you come from?? Where did Lucky go??" He is nowhere to be seen. But Lady looks happy to have taken his place.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bored, Bored, Bored

The dogs are bored. Lucy is bored. Ennui is a scratchy woolen blanket draped over all of us in the house, muffling the light, the sounds, activity. Lucy expresses her boredom by stalking through the house, meowing unceasingly in a tone akin to fingernails scratching down a chalkboard. Okay, I suppose that's not the tone, but it's certainly the effect. Lady hops up each time we approach the closet that holds the jackets and leashes, only to turn back when she realizes we aren't going anywhere, the disappointment written all over her drooping body. And Lucky is simply invisible, hibernating on his bed in the back bedroom like a bear denned up for winter.

The recent rain hasn't helped. Nor the fact that each day holds only about 5 hours of sunlight. All right, maybe not 5, that's Alaska; I tend to exaggerate when bored out of my mind. But, it's dark now, and it will be dark when I get home from work. I find this part of winter tedious. The novelty and beauty of early winter has worn off, and turned dull, flat. I'm tired of the activities that a couple of months ago brought cheer and contentment, making the big pot of chili, reading by the fire, getting cozy in a blanket.

But in just a few short weeks, we'll be headed toward March, and crocus will be popping up here and there to surprise us. I know where to look for that first one, too. It will be in the front yard of a house on the left side of the road as we start out on the neighborhood walk route we refer to as "the lower loop." Oh, I can't wait. I'm so grateful to live in a place with four distinct seasons. We'll make it. In the meantime, maybe one more pot of chili, and some TV to pass the time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Early Morning Wren Reverie

A squat little Carolina wren hops about on the platform feeder outside my window. She doesn't seem to mind the steady rain, or me on the other side of the window watching. A moment ago she was sitting on the fence just singing her heart out in defiance of the dreary weather. I love these bold little birds. Not only do they have the propensity to be cheerful on the most drab of days, but look at that stern little expression! How could you not love that face?

She reminds me of a substitute teacher I had in 5th grade. A bit rotund and grumpy on the outside, but good-natured underneath. I'd love the opportunity to hold one of these little birds. Oh how I wish I could!

I would put my hand out, and she would hop right in. "Light as a feather!" I'd think to myself, marveling at the rhythm of her tiny heartbeat against my fingers. Her warm little body would fit just perfectly in my palm, and I'd carry her inside, out of the rain for a few minutes. Maybe blot her off with a hand towel, if she didn't mind, then introduce her to Lady, Lucky, and Lucy. Lady would want a closer look and would be doing her "I'm-not-really-jumping-up" jumping up, in which she sort of bounces, half raising herself up, but not quite enough to get scolded for it. I would have to say "No Lady, back back." Then we'd all go into the living room to sit for a spell. Oh, wouldn't that be fun!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happy Tuesday!

It's Tuesday!! It's a great day!! I'm so happy I think I'll plop down on the ground and wiggle around and kick my feet in the air!!

Dogs have such enthusiasm for everything. When I return from a short trip down the driveway to retrieve the mail, they act like I've been gone for a week. "Oh, you're back!! Joy, joy!! We missed you!! We love you!!" When I pull out the ziplock bag of dry dog food they eat every day of their lives, their unbridled enthusiasm is such that it might as well be a bag of filet mignon steaks. Going for a ride in the truck to the grocery store is a grand adventure. Dogs live in the present, and approach each and every experience, no matter how mundane, as a wonderful gift to be savored.

Let us all learn from our dogs. Happy Tuesday!

Monday, January 24, 2011


Is there anything cozier than a sleeping cat? Anyone who lives with a feline knows: they have "napping" perfected to an art form. Linus looked like a little angel when he slept, a tiger-striped ball of utter contentment. To see him in these moments, you'd never guess he could go completely psycho-kitty at the drop of a hat. Literally, if someone dropped a hat. Or anything else. Or, nothing at all. He would be in what appeared to be the soundest of sleeps, when suddenly he would bolt awake and down the hall. This was most unfortunate if he happened to be on your lap at the time, particularly if you were wearing shorts. It also happened when he was awake. He'd be sitting there peacefully when suddenly - ACCKKK! He'd tear out of the room. This didn't happen often, perhaps once every few months. But often enough that I began to wonder about the existence of a feline version of sensory integration disorder. Or, perhaps it wasn't that complicated. Someone offered this theory after witnessing one of his psycho-kitty moments: "Maybe he sees dead people."

And bless his heart, Linus was a holy terror at the vet. Even sedated (the only way to get him there), he occasionally got loose and raced around the exam room. I remember leaving the room once when the gloves and giant cat-catching net came out. It was just too stressful to endure. I sat in the lobby, listening miserably as ear-splitting howls of cat fury issued forth from the back regions of the clinic, along with the occasional clatter and crash. Arriving clients' eyes widened as they came through the door and heard the ruckus. It was kind of embarrassing, actually. I found that the best approach in such situations was to feign ignorance. Look appropriately startled and glance around the waiting area as if wondering, "Gee, I wonder whose cat that is?"

But Linus had a sweet side to his personality bigger than the psycho side that occasionally emerged. He was such a snuggle-muffin! No matter where he was in the house when you sat down, he'd be on your lap within 30 seconds, whether he knew you or not. Linus was very outgoing, unlike his sister Lucy, who in her younger years preferred to wait behind the dryer until the visitors were gone. 

Catching the screen saver was his personal mission in life.  

Although I don't think he ever caught it.

Little angel boy, hard to believe he's been gone 4 years. Time really does fly. Our furry family members bring so much into our lives, and it often feels like they just don't live long enough. I'm always grateful when the tears pass, leaving behind the smiles - and memories of a gray head peering behind the monitor in bewilderment, "Where did that thing go??"

(Linus: August 1999-March 2007)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

You Watch My Back, I'll Watch Yours

"Meow! Meow! Meow! Meow! Meow!"

I set the remote aside and hop up from the couch; Lady wants to come in. In yesterday's post, I commented that Lady's caretaking behaviors toward her canine brother Lucky are never reciprocated. However, that's not the case with the cat. When Lady goes outside to "take care of business," Lucy keeps watch and lets everyone know when she's ready to come back in. And it's not just random meowing. there's a specific pitch, tone and urgency of meows reserved only for this occasion.

And if you're busy, and don't come right away... well, it's sort of like trying to ignore your alarm clock. The "Lady wants to come in" alert gets louder and more insistent. I imagine it translates into something like this:

"HELLO!! Are you going to leave the poor dog out there all day??! 
It's cold!! Come open the door! No, not in a minute! Now!" 

"It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it."

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lady, My Beautiful Enigma

The walk was going great until we rounded the corner. My afternoon reverie vanished in an uproar of barking, yelping, and lunging at a small poodle who unfortunately happened to be rounding the corner toward us at the same time. "No!" I said urgently to Lady as the startled woman pulled her now yapping dog off the sidewalk and hurried past. "Leave it alone!" But in that brief instant, Lady, who mere moments ago had been serenely enjoying the walk, was transformed into an insane, agitated 90 pound bundle of anxiety. I could read the woman's thoughts as she glanced back at us - "Geesh, have you ever heard of dog training?"

Embarrassing/frustrating dog walking moment #938.

Lady joined the family just before Easter in 2007. And since that time we've tried just about everything in the book to change this behavior, fondly referred to among family and friends as Lady's "crazy dog" routine, since that's exactly what it looks like when it happens. A dog behaviorist consulted this past year validated intervention techniques tried thus far, provided a few new suggestions (which have been helpful), but best of all, shared her experiences with her own "Lady," a German Shepherd she rescued 6 years ago. That was so reassuring. Because at some point you do start to wonder - what am I doing wrong??

I was drawn to Lady because of my experience with Jessie, my first German Shepherd. But the two dogs could not possibly be more different. None of Lady's "issues" were present in Jessie. But according to the dog behaviorist, it isn't uncommon for German Shepherd dogs to exhibit these behaviors, that to an extent have been intentionally cultivated in this breed.

Essentially, Lady's problems stem from an overdeveloped instinct to protect, guard, and watch over her family. That's her "job." In the right environment, her behavior wouldn't be problematic, it would be valued. But considering we don't live on a Scottish moor with a flock of sheep to keep together and protect from wolves, well...her skills and instincts are a bit of a mismatch with the current environment.

So Miss Lady continues to be a work in progress. One of the goals is to teach her which elements in the environment merit a reaction, and which don't. I can still remember the day I was driving down I-40, and Lady, who was riding in the enclosed back end of the truck, suddenly exploded into a pandemonium of barking. Startled, I quickly looked around, trying to find the source of the uproar. There was nothing. There weren't even any cars around us. And yet Lady continued to bark, that loud frantic dangerous barking that says "I am going to tear you apart if you get any closer!!" About the time I was thinking to myself "I really DO have a crazy dog," suddenly I heard a familiar sound. A helicopter. I glanced out the side window and up, and sure enough, there was a helicopter up there, apparently too close to the truck for Lady's comfort. Then I just had to chuckle. I have a dog that protects me from helicopters.

I have to reassure her that I am in control, so she doesn't need to be. She has made a lot of progress over the past 3+ years. And she knows when she's done the right thing. When we pass a dog on the sidewalk, and she manages to restrain her almost unrestrainable desire to create a ruckus, I say "Good dog! Good leave it!" And she looks up at me with this unmistakably proud smile on her face, just beaming and prancing, as if to say "See! I did it! I'm a good girl!" The first time she uneventfully passed by another dog, we had such a party you'd have thought she just won a gold medal in the Olympics. Now she "gets it." I know she does. However sometimes she does the right thing, and sometimes not. It's very hard to figure out the rhyme or reason.

When I was considering titles for this post, the word "enigma" popped to mind. I looked it up, thinking perhaps another word would be a better fit. But the first definition for enigma read - "mystery: something that baffles understanding and cannot be explained." That's pretty much it. Despite all I've learned, Lady still baffles me. Why will she ignore 3 dogs out of 5, but go bonkers over two of them? Why does she persist in doing things that make us all feel bad - even though she knows better? And how can such a frustrating dog also be so wonderful and lovable?

The instructor of Lady's first obedience course wrote a personal note at the bottom of her end of course report card. It read "beautiful spirit!!" I was touched by that, because although Lady had only been with us for about 3 months at that point, I felt it too. There was something about her, a brightness and love that shone out from those soulful eyes.

Lady has a sweetness of spirit that exists in such sharp contrast to the chaotic energy that erupts in the face of a perceived threat. She is kind to the cat, and by way of greeting will lick the top of her head in a maternal way (much to Lucy's chagrin, I imagine). Her concern for members of the family, instinctive though it may be, is nonetheless touching. If I decide to get up from bed at night to make sure I locked the door, she goes with me, even though she was comfortable and half asleep. She'll patiently wait for me, and watch, while I check all the doors, then we both head back to bed. Lucky could care less. "You heard a crash in the basement? Go check it out and let me know if its anything to worry about." That's Lucky.

I've never had a dog that would wake me up if I'm having a bad dream, but Lady does that. She'll put her paws on the bed and gently nuzzle me until I wake up. As soon as I awaken, she quietly returns to her fleece bed, settling back down with her characteristic heavy sigh. The first time she did this, I couldn't believe it.

She also takes care of Lucky, watching over him outside and demonstrating concern if he wanders too far. When Lucky wants something, Lady is the one to come ask, on his behalf. It's surprising, and cute. This behavior is never reciprocated, but she doesn't seem to care. And as I've blogged about previously, Lady will serve as bodyguard for the cat if asked. It's clear she understands that job and takes it seriously.

What an enigma you are, my beautiful Lady! Dainty and feminine, fierce and protective. You can be impossibly stubborn and strong-willed, and yet you sit obediently waiting for the command that it's okay to eat, while the cat - who doesn't know any of the commands - proceeds to help herself to your food. Unlike Lucky, you will drop everything and come rocketing across the dog park when called, but completely ignore me when distracted by something.

So "in tune" with me, you gaze into my eyes and cock your head this way and that, trying with such intensity to discern my thoughts and intentions. Yet at other times you disregard my wishes with wild abandon. And I can't believe that after three years, you still seize every possible opportunity to get on the couch, even though you know its forbidden.

Oh, and although we haven't figured out how a 90 pound dog can tiptoe up and down a flight of wooden stairs without being heard - we know you do it. Lucy never eats her bowl completely clean. Your attempt to be sneaky would work better if you left a little of the food in the bowl.

We love you Ladybelle, you beautiful enigma. Keep looking after your family - it's appreciated. But trust the humans. Most of the time, we really do know best. We'll keep working on it together.

Friday, January 21, 2011

My Cat-centric Universe

I finally managed to locate an empty box for shipping a surprise package to the kids, but realized I left the packing tape in the kitchen. I was gone from the room for approximately three seconds.

And Lucy was a big help when I was working on critiques for my writing class. I wonder if any of my classmates ever wondered about the little black hairs that often accompanied the helpful suggestions?

She never wants you to get lonely while you're reading the newspaper....

or working on a puzzle.

(P.S. I have to point out that the puzzle Lucy is laying on is a
puzzle of cats and dogs working on a puzzle. Perfect!)

Ahhh, the joys of living in a cat-centric universe! Lucy is the sun, with everyone and everything else designated planets of more, or lesser, importance depending on her mood. Can't imagine things any other way.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Feeding the Birds in Winter

This isn't exactly what I had in mind...

Check out the Carolina wren on top of the pole in the photo below.     Looks like he's saying "What the ---??!"

"So what's your problem??"

Monday, January 17, 2011

The "B" Word

Lady and Lucky HATE to take a bath. Bathing them is not exactly my favorite way to spend an afternoon either, but sometimes it has to be done. All the snow of recent weeks has converted the neighborhood roads into gritty, slushy avenues of yuck. After a 3 or 4 mile walk, both dogs are black underneath, including the one who is not black. And a towel can only do so much. So, the decree goes out: it's Bath Day.

Preparations are made, which includes locating the doggie shampoo, gathering every spare towel in the house, and clearing the hall bathroom of all important items. Then, one at a time the dogs are led into The Chamber of Doom.

I don't know what could possibly be so horrible about getting wet. They act like I'm going to lead them in there and drown them. It's not like I use any of those dreadfully aromatic dog shampoos on the market, shampoos that give me a headache with their sickening sweet coconut or lilac smell. And I have a mere 5 million olfactory receptors. I've often wondered what being immersed in that smell must be like for a dog with 220 million olfactory receptors. But I am a good dog mom. I use an unscented oatmeal shampoo. However, I suppose it's possible that those extra 215 million receptors find even "unscented" shampoo objectionable.

When the hapless victim reaches the edge of the bathtub, that's when things get interesting. The first time I bathed Lady and Lucky indoors, I discovered something fascinating. Dogs possess the supernatural ability to triple their body weight at will. I reach underneath Lucky to guide him up over the edge of the bathtub, but he isn't going to be guided. I have to pick him up. But his 75 pounds has become 225 pounds. The effort to pick him up and place him into the bathtub becomes a shove-lift-haul-drag maneuver that I am thankful no one is capturing on videotape.

Finally I get him into the tub, but the poor dog's heart is beating so hard against my hands I'm afraid he's going to have a heart attack. I talk to him in soothng tones, promise not to drown him, and rub his head. He calms down, and I commence the actual bathing, of which there are no photos because the process takes every ounce of my concentration and physical strength. Lady is a bit more cooperative. Once in the tub, she accepts her fate.

She fixes me with a pathetic look, however, that speaks volumes about the indignity of her ordeal. Somehow we get through it, and once she's been rinsed squeaky clean, she hops out of the tub much more eagerly than she hopped ('aka' was shoved-lifted-hauled-dragged) in. Both dogs love the after bath toweling off routine. The dreadful deed is done, and dog euphoria abounds. Lady snuggles head first into the towel, and I dry her enough to make her safe for the rest of the house. The door opens, and out she goes like a shot. Both dogs get a case of the post bath herky-jerkys, which is always fun to watch. It's more fun in summer though, when it can occur outdoors.

Then I turn back to the bathroom.

I'm not sure what's worse. Cleaning the dogs, or cleaning the bathroom after the dogs are clean.

While Lady and Lucky frolic in the living room (probably trying to dry themselves on the rug), I gather up the supplies for Phase 2: scrub brush, Comet, paper towels, Windex, vaccuum cleaner. When the bathroom is clean, then its time to hop in the shower to rid myself of "Eau de Wet Dog." Finally, we're all clean. I am exhausted.

Is it time for a nap?

P.S. In keeping with today's theme, reader Darla from contributed this gem of a poem in the comments section, and has graciously given permission for it to be reproduced here. Thanks Darla!

Oh! the aroma of Eau de Canine!
On a cool, rainy day the odor is fine
It raises your eyebrows the scent is so strong
You wonder, perchance, will it last all day long?
The damp hair arises and clings to your nose
Which wrinkles with sneezes that curl your toes
Ah, yes, what a lovely scent this shall be
Would anyone pass up this chance to be me?
To sniff and to sneeze and be tickled with fur
You say, Ah, YES! I want to be her!


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Diamond in the Rough

(by guest blogger Heather Peden from Three Dogs and a Couch
Whenever Max was gone a little longer than usual on his wanders, I used to stand at the bedroom window in the top floor of our house and try to see past a crowd of tree trunks to the dirt road three stories below. I would crane my neck, bobbing my head this way and that as I tried to find a good angle around the pillars of papery white birch and silver-gray poplar, through the bristling needles of balsam branches.
Depending on the time of day or whether the sun shone through the clouds or from a clear sky, Max's bold German Shepherd colours were either glowing a warm coppery caramel or camouflaged against the varied brown hues of the surrounding forest. As I looked for a hint of movement I would catch a glimpse of light pinging off silver and then I could relax. Sometimes the easiest way to spot Max through the tangle of the woods was to look for the shine of his wheelchair.
When Max came to live with us, he could still walk but the hair on the knuckles of his back feet was worn away from years of dragging his toes. His spine was crooked, all bent and stiff like a gnarled, petrified tree branch, his tail hung limply as though it had once been broken, the muscles of his back legs were withered and wiry.
My husband and I found out when we adopted him that he was slowly losing feeling in his back end due to degenerative myelopathy, a genetic disease common in German Shepherds.
While his back half was frail and slowly becoming useless, from the front Max looked like the majestic dog I imagined he was in his prime. He reminded me of a lion with his wide front feet of pale toffee and the thick dark mane that defined his broad chest and shoulders.
His kind face and gentle nature shone through the dirt and grime that tarnished his coat after living for years outdoors with little protection against the elements. When I looked into his dark brown eyes, misting over with cataracts, I knew our paths had been destined to cross.
Max was with us for a year and a half before his back legs would no longer support his weight and we finally got him a wheelchair. The first evening we strapped on his harnesses and clipped him to the shiny new contraption he barely looked back, taking off at a run down our road as though it was the most natural thing to do.

In the months that followed it became a familiar sight in our little neighbourhood to see Max trundling along in his wheelchair, just being a dog. I loved walking with him. The wheels of his chair creaked and squeaked with each step, gravel crunched under his tires, and those sounds above anything else became my favourite sounds in the world.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

So Close, And Yet So Far.

Have you ever noticed
that on some days,
the things you want
seem always to be
just out of reach?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Bleak Midwinter?

I'd heard the familiar carol my entire life, singing along with the lyrics about that ground hard as iron, water like a stone. I can still remember however, when I actually understood the song. I was sitting in my little apartment that first winter in Duluth, doing homework, and listening to the CD. "Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow." OH! It was an a-ha moment when the words became real to me for the first time.

In fact, as a dog owner in Minnesota, I discovered something very interesting about this snow-on-snow phenomenon. There's rarely a need to pooper scoop during the winter. By the time you get your scoop and trash sack, the pile you were going to clean up is gone. It's like magic! Well, until spring. It's not too magic then. I'll spare you the gory details.

This winter in North Carolina is beginning to remind me of Minnesota. The driveway that was cleared on Tuesday is now completely covered again. The wind has blown the snow into drifts against the fence.

The little paths I created to the birdfeeders are again obscured by snow, making me thankful for the sturdy snow boots I got in Duluth. I won them as a door prize the year I was a volunteer at the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Those boots are almost 15 years old now, but as wonderful as the day I first pulled them on. I could trek anywhere in those boots.

Well, bleak though this winter may be, Lucy and Lady don't seem to mind it. Both of them enjoy going out in the snow. In fact, Lucy insists on it. She meows and meows and meows until I cave in. I open the door "ALL RIGHT ALREADY!!" and out she goes, stalking down the sidewalk with serious catitude. I send Lady out to supervise.

However, after Lucy has been outside for about 5 minutes, she begins lifting each paw up one at a time and shaking it clear of snow. The look on her face clearly reads: "Geesh, who made this snow so cold??" Then she wants to come in. RIGHT NOW.

So I move the draft stopper, rugs, and boots by the door to let her back in. She comes in complaining, like I did this to her. "I told you it was cold out there Lucy!" It takes her about 10 minutes to warm up, and then we start this cycle over again.

Even the garden cats look cold today.

Lucky is the smart one in the family. He prefers to stay warm and dry in his bed. Eat, sleep, only go outside if you have to.

"Wake me in the Spring!"